Some reasons for toddler misbehaviour

Limit-pushing behaviour can confound even the most attuned parent or caregiver. Why would our sweet darling throw her toy at us when we’ve just asked her not to, and then add insult to injury by smirking? Is she evil? Does she have a pressing need to practice throwing skills? Maybe she just hates us…

Sensitive, intensely emotional, and severely lacking in impulse control, toddlers often have unusual ways of expressing their needs and feelings. If it’s any consolation, these behaviours don’t make sense to our children either. The simple explanation is the unfortunate combination of an immature prefrontal cortex and the turbulent emotions of toddlerhood. More simply: children are easily overwhelmed by impulses bigger and stronger than they are. In other words, your child very likely understood that you didn’t want her to hit you, her friends, siblings, and pets; dump her food or water onto the floor; whine, scream, and call you “stupid”; but her impulses made a different choice. And though she smirks, this isn’t out of ill will.

Always remember to never, ever take a child’s limit-pushing behaviour personally.

Our children love, appreciate, and need us more than they can ever say. Remind yourself of these truths multiple times daily until you’ve internalized them, because a healthy perspective on limit-pushing is a crucial starting point. Respecting children means understanding their stage of development, not reacting to their age-appropriate behaviour as if they are our peers.

Here are the most common reasons young children push limits:

1. SOS! I can’t function.
Young children seem to be the last people on earth to register their own fatigue or hunger. They seem programmed to push on, and sometimes their bodies will take possession of their minds and transmit SOS messages to us through attention-getting behaviour. When I think about my own children’s limit-pushing behaviour, the examples that immediately come to mind are about fatigue:

There was the day at RIE class when my toddler son (who has always seemed to have social savvy) suddenly started hitting and pushing. Ah-ha. He’s tired and has had enough of this. I let him know I heard him and that we’d be leaving: “I don’t want you to hit. I think you’re letting me know you’re tired and ready to go home, right?” But then I got involved in a discussion with one of the other parents and forgot for a moment and, no surprise, he hit again. Oops. Totally my fault. “Sorry, B, I told you we would leave and then started talking. Thanks for reminding me we need to go.”

Then there was the family trip when one of my daughters, age four at the time, uncharacteristically spoke rudely to my mother. Taken aback for a moment (How could she?) but determined to remain calm, I intervened: “I can’t let you talk to Grandma that way….we’re going to go.” I ushered her out of the room screaming (my daughter was the one screaming, although I wanted to). As I carried her to a private space where she could melt down with me safely, it hit me — we’d been traveling for six or seven hours. Of course she’s exhausted and just letting me know in her four-year-old way. Duh. My fault again. I cannot count the number of times my children’s behaviour has hit the skids because they were suddenly overtaken by hunger just twenty minutes after they’d been offered food. And their inevitable response — “I wasn’t hungry then” — always seemed so unfair. Apparently all is fair when it comes to love, war, and toddlers.

2. Clarity, please.
Children will often push our limits simply because they haven’t received a straight answer to the question, “What will you do if I do such-and-such?” And then they might need to know, “Will it be different on Monday afternoon? What about when you’re tired? Or I’m cranky? If I get upset, will you do something different?” So by continuing to push limits, toddlers are only doing their job, which is to learn about our leadership (and our love), clarify our expectations and house rules, and to understand where their power lies. Our job is to answer as calmly and directly as possible. Our responses will obviously vary from situation to situation, but they should consistently demonstrate that we’re totally unthreatened by their behaviour, that we can handle it, and that it’s no big deal at all.

3. What’s all the fuss about?
When parents lose their cool, lecture, over-direct, or even talk about limit-pushing behaviours a bit too much, they can create interesting little dramas which children are compelled to re-enact. Punishments and emotional responses create stories that are frightening, alarming, shaming, guilt-inducing, or any combination.

When parents say more than a sentence or two about the limit-pushing behaviour, even while remaining calm, they risk creating a tale about a child with a problem (perhaps he hugs his baby sister too forcefully), which then causes the child to identify with this as his story and problem, when it was just an impulsive, momentary behaviour he tried out a couple of times.

For instance, counter to the example I shared about my daughter speaking rudely to Grandma, which for me clearly indicated that she was out-of-herself and unraveling, my response would be far more minimal if a spark of rudeness was directed at me. Rather than react and risk creating a story around occasional whining, screaming “you’re stupid,” “I hate you,” etc., I would dis-empower those behaviours by allowing them to roll-l-l off my back. Perhaps I’d acknowledge, “I hear how angry you are about leaving the park. That really disappointed you.”

Always, always, always encourage your child to express these feelings. Again, testing us with these behaviours from time to time is age-appropriate, and if we react, we may encourage this to continue. Sometimes children will smile or laugh when they know they are re-enacting a story, but this is usually an uneasy, tentative smile rather than one of happiness.

4. Do I have capable leaders?
Imagine how disconcerting it is to be two, three, or four years old and not be certain we have a stable leader. The most effective leaders lead with confidence, keep their sense of humor, and make it look easy. This takes practice but — not to worry — children will give us plenty of chances through their limit-pushing behaviour until we get it right. Know what’s important, both for you and for the child. If you are not clear, the child’s opposition will persist, which will make you, the parent, even angrier. This in turn highlights the conflict that exists already, leading to an unhappy situation combining anger, guilt, and fear. A child has a difficult time growing up with ambivalent parents.

5. I’ve got a feeling.
Children will sometimes persistently push limits when they have internalized feelings and stress that they need to release. Trusting this invaluable process and calmly (but firmly) holding the limits for our child while welcoming his or her feelings is the quickest and healthiest way to ease this need for limit-pushing. Maintaining an “all feelings allowed” attitude will nip most limit-pushing behaviours in the bud.

6. The sincerest form of flattery (sort of).
Children are sensitive and impressionable, and we are their most influential models, so they will absorb our behaviour and reflect it through theirs. For example, if we snatch toys away from our child, she may persistently snatch from friends. A child is likely to behave more erratically whenever her parents are upset or stressed about anything, especially if her parents haven’t openly shared these feelings.

7. Seems the best way to get your attention these days.
If the comfort and validation of our attention has been in short supply, or if there have been compelling mini-stories and dramas created around our child’s limit-pushing behaviour, she might end up repeating them to seek this negative attention.

8. Have you told me that you love me lately?

When children feel ignored, or even just a bit out of favour with us, it rattles them, and fear shows up in their limit-pushing behaviour. Reassuring hugs, kisses, and “I love you” will certainly help to mend these bridges, but the messages of love that matter most are heard through our patience, empathy, acceptance, respectful leadership, and the genuine interest we take in knowing our child.

To love toddlers is to know them.

Respectful parenting

What do I mean by respect? That’s what this book is about. If you treat your child respectfully from birth, he may have a better chance of gaining confidence and developing good judgment. This plants the seeds of lifelong security. He learns how to relate to other people in a healthy way and how to realistically, rather than blindly, trust the world.

Respect is a two-way street. Equally important, you as parents have needs, too. Being a parent is the most difficult undertaking in the world, a twenty-four-hour-a-day job that requires your time, patience, and energy whether you are sick or well, in a good mood or not. And the task is no easier as your child grows into adulthood. Often parents are left with residual guilt, feeling “If only I had done this in the beginning . . .”

Implementing consistent routines help parents simplify their lives and develop the ability to recognize when they should step in to influence their child’s behaviour and when to save their energy for larger issues, such as for nurturing themselves.

The term “educarer”, combining educator and carer, means one who educates children in a caring manner. And I prefer to use the word carer rather than caregiver or caretaker because a carer neither gives nor takes. For clarity’s sake, I use the word “caregiving” when referring to an activity such as a “caregiving task” so that it won’t be confused with “caring,” which might be understood to simply mean loving.

A carer puts love into action. The way you care for your baby is how he experiences your love. Everyday caregiving routines, like feeding and diapering, can be educational and loving interactions. These everyday routines form the building blocks of edu-caring and respect. Allowing infants to learn on their own rather than actively stimulating or teaching them is a basic tenet. Children learn all the time, from the day they are born. If we refrain from teaching them, they learn from experience. What we need to do is not interfere, step back, and allow learning to happen. What young children need to learn is how to adapt to their families.

If you begin well, by trying to understand your child’s point of view from infancy, there is a greater likelihood you will continue doing this throughout your life. Many misconceptions exist about babies and small children, and too little knowledge is based on observation and empathy. Observing your child carefully helps you to tune into his unique rhythm and understand his unique needs.

This respectful approach differs from most other childrearing theories in that it is based on the simple concept of observing your child. In our fast-paced modern culture, child development fads appear and disappear like fashions that come in and out of style. Hanging black and white mobiles over babies’ beds, showing them flash cards, putting them in walkers to “help” them walk, all activities that push a child to learn, have nothing to do with the reality of a young child’s day-to-day needs.

Respect. Honour. Esteem. These words aren’t usually associated with young babies. Yet it is widely agreed that these concepts are vital later in life. A child’s personality is largely formed in the first three years. Her outlook on the world is being shaped. Why not engage in a respectful relationship with your child as soon as possible? The benefits will be long-lasting.

What does respect mean, in terms of parents and children? It means accepting, enjoying, and loving your child as she is and not expecting her to do what she cannot do. It means allowing your child the time, the space, and the love and support to be herself and to discover the world in her own unique way. It means trying to understand her point of view.

To respect your child is to believe in her competence and see her as dependent on you rather than helpless. It is to accept and support both her dependence and independence, based on the developmental stage she is in. It is love plus consideration, treating your child as you would treat an honoured guest. To respect your child is to create a little distance so that you refrain from interfering with her experience of encountering life. Respect means setting boundaries for your child and for yourself as a parent, and enforcing these boundaries. It is letting your child know your expectations of her behaviour so that she can cooperate and, thus, respect you. Respect means taking care of your own needs as well as hers. It is nurturing and honouring yourself.

A respectful approach encourages a child’s authenticity, or genuineness, which means encouraging her to be honest about her feelings. It tells a child, “to thine own self be true”. Be who you are. It’s an ongoing life struggle. No society allows total honesty, so we must all wear masks and learn to pretend at times. People lose touch with their real selves. That’s too high a price to pay to fit in.

You may wonder how to encourage the spirit of authenticity. Simply let your child be. Spend time sitting back and observing her. See who she is and what her needs are. Don’t expect her to do what she is not ready or able to do. Let her crawl until she can, on her own, take her first steps. Don’t encourage your child to smile when she doesn’t feel like smiling. If she is sad, let her cry. Don’t expect or demand behaviour that is not genuine. Rather, value what she does.

Children are often expected to “behave” rather than be who they are. In many situations people unwittingly teach children how to be less than honest. When a child cries, she is not asked, “What happened?” but is usually told, “You’re okay.” We do this as a society. The message is: if you are not okay, keep it to yourself. Often, too, with children, conformity, rather than honesty, is encouraged. But perhaps we can learn to let children feel free to express their emotions and, as they grow, learn how to control their impulses.

The child-counsellor relationship in the counselling of children

Those of us working in nurseries have to develop the skills of being able to counsel young children – or at least listen and show empathy akin to being a counsellor. The relationship between child and counsellor is primarily about connecting with the child and staying with the child’s perceptions. The child may see the environment in which they live quite differently from the way in which their parents see this environment. The counsellor’s job is to join with the child and to work from within the child’s framework.

Approaching the child–counsellor relationship with judgement, affirmation or condemnation, invites the child to move away from their own perceptions and towards those of the counsellor. Instead, it is important for the child to stay with their own values, beliefs and attitudes rather than to be influenced by the counsellor’s values, beliefs and attitudes.

The child–counsellor relationship provides a link between the child’s world and the counsellor, enabling the counsellor to observe with clarity the experience of the child. This observation will inevitably be partially distorted by the counsellor’s own experiences, and some projection of these onto the child is unavoidable.

However, the counsellor’s aim is to minimize the influence of their own experience, so that their connection with the child’s experience of the world is as complete as is possible.

The child–counsellor relationship as an exclusive relationship
As counsellors it is important for us to establish and maintain good rapport with the child so that trust is developed. This development of trust can be supported if the child experiences a strong flavour of exclusivity, that is, a unique relationship with the counsellor which is not compromised by the unwanted intrusion of others, such as parents or siblings.

The child will have a personal perception of themselves, which will not be the same as the parents’ perception. For the therapeutic relationship to be effective it is important for the child to feel accepted by the counsellor for the way in which that child perceives themselves. It won’t be helpful if the child thinks that the counsellor’s views of them have been influenced by the parents or by significant others. This can be avoided if the child–counsellor relationship is exclusive.

Keeping the relationship exclusive means not allowing others to intrude or to be included without the child’s permission. Consequently, preparation of the child and parents for therapy requires specific attention because there is clearly an ethical issue involved. The parents have care and control of the child, yet in therapy we are proposing that the counsellor builds an exclusive relationship with the child. How do you think the parents will feel about that?

The situation may be aggravated in cases where parents are using public health services or the services of large non-government agencies. Some parents may feel disempowered and overwhelmed by the system, even though individual workers may try to create a personal consumer-oriented service. Such parents may be worried by the suggestion that they will not be fully included in the counselling process. This ethical issue can only be addressed satisfactorily if the counsellor is clear with parents about the nature of the therapeutic relationship and gains their acceptance of what is required.

Therapy is generally a new experience for the child and the parents. We may find that parents are likely to have a satisfactory level of comfort and to have confidence in the process if they are fully informed about the need for the counsellor to maintain an exclusive relationship with the child. It is helpful to warn parents that at times their child may not wish to disclose information arising from a therapy session.

It is also reasonable to expect that parents may feel anxious and believe that they might be left without information which they should rightfully know. Parents need to have reassurance that in time they will be given all the information that is important for them. They need to understand that children often have great difficulty sharing important and private information and that such sharing needs to be done when the child is ready and feels safe about sharing.

Sometimes, particularly at important points in the therapeutic process, a child may develop behaviours which are more difficult for the parents to manage than the presenting behaviours apparent at the commencement of therapy. It is helpful to warn parents that there may be a period of improvement soon after treatment begins which is often followed by a setback.

Passing general information to the parents, such as that mentioned in this and the previous paragraph, does not compromise the exclusivity of the relationship. However, to pass on specific details of a therapy session without the child’s agreement would certainly compromise exclusivity. As the child’s confidence in the counsellor increases and the counsellor’s understanding of the child’s issues becomes broader, the trust that the child experiences becomes stronger. This trust is reinforced by the knowledge that fears, anxieties and negative thoughts towards parents, events and situations will not be disclosed to the child’s parents or family members without the child’s agreement.

We may believe that a child has a right to privacy, subject to certain limitations, but must understand that it is sometimes difficult for parents to accept this. Clearly, it’s highly desirable to enlist the support and encouragement of parents so that the child feels free to talk openly with the counsellor. Counsellors have found that if we are open with parents about the nature of the child–counsellor relationship, parents will most often be very supportive of our work with their children.

Hence we try to build a trusting relationship with the parents in the child’s presence. Thus the exclusivity of the child–counsellor relationship is maintained, the child is fully aware of the parents’ acceptance of that relationship, and is given permission and encouraged by the parents to join with us.

Considerations in counselling young childen

Sometimes children suffer longer than they should in environments that are stressful, abusive and unsafe because the adults around them lack the skills to open the door to effective communication. Engaging effectively with children requires skill and commitment, but it is a skill that can be learned, and these activities will help build your confidence and give you practical ideas and resources to use.

Social workers frequently have to work with children to address very difficult issues. It is often the first time they have met the child. It is important to keep in mind that the world view of children who have been abused and neglected is likely to be that the adults around them neither care about them nor have been able to protect them, and may have been the abusers themselves (Ainsworth et al. 1978). In these circumstances, it is imperative that we are able to convey to the child that we are safe, caring and interested adults.

When engaged in long-term work, there are additional challenges in building and sustaining a relationship with a child. Children who have been consistently let down by adults often build a protective barrier that means they are very cautious of, or even closed down to, investing in a relationship. It is not uncommon for a child to try very hard not to engage with a worker, to reject the possibility of a relationship almost before it has begun. For these children, experience of multiple losses has shown that it can be unsafe to trust (Fahlberg 1991). Their experience is that they have to attempt to self-regulate, to be emotionally self-sufficient, which, for an immature brain, often results in defensiveness on the one hand, or being emotionally over-demanding (Gerhardt 2004) on the other.

With every interaction we have with a child we have the power to begin to change this world view of adults, whether we are foster carers, social workers, teachers, nursery nurses or care workers. In effect, we can offer children a different working model of the world.

This healing process can begin with the child learning to engage and trust just one other person in her life. You could be that person. This is a huge privilege and also a huge responsibility, but the rewards and benefits are immeasurable, for both the child and the worker.

Children have the right to confidentiality during one-to-one sessions. However, it would be naive to think this can be absolute. Issues will arise in the course of working with a child that do need to be shared with others – either with the child’s immediate carers or, in the case of child protection, other professionals and potentially the child’s own family members.

The important thing is to be honest with the child from the start. The child’s developmental age will determine how you explain the level of confidentiality that you can offer (and this may also depend on your role). With younger children, counsellors talk about safe and fun secrets, ‘like when you have made a card for mummy and you don’t want to tell her before her birthday’. You can tell the child that we all like those kinds of secrets. But there are other secrets that are upsetting, maybe about the child or someone else getting hurt or not being safe. These kinds of things can’t be kept secret because they are too big for anybody to have to keep secret. We have to tell these secrets, so we call them ‘have to tell secrets’.

You can have this conversation using a series of picture cards and discussing which ones could be secrets. Why would they be secret? Are they ‘fun secrets’ or ‘have to tell secrets’? For children who can read well, having short scenarios written down can be more developmentally appropriate. In group work you could ask one group to act out the secret and one to discuss whether they think it is a ‘fun secret’ or a ‘have to tell secret’. Do both groups agree?

Issues will arise in sessions that you either need to tell main carers or that would be beneficial to tell. In this situation acknowledge this with the child and explain why it would be a good idea to tell. In a situation where it would be beneficial to tell, social workers may invite the child to tell the carer/parent with them and let the child do the talking while they are present, as support. If this is not comfortable for the child, speak directly to the carer/parent, preferably in the child’s presence. If the child doesn’t want to be there, or leaves half way through, that is fine. The aim should be to involve the child as far as possible.

Positive Parenting Tools

So, what tools and ideas will help your child learn all she needs to know? If punishment doesn’t work, what does? Here are some suggestions. Remember, your child’s individual development is critical in these years; remember, too, that nothing works all the time for all children. As your unique child grows and changes, you’ll have to return to the drawing board many times, but these ideas will form the foundation for years of effective parenting.

Get Children Involved
Education comes from the Latin root educare, which means “to draw forth.” This may explain why children so often tune you out when you try to “stuff in” through constant demands and lectures. Instead of telling children what to do, find ways to involve them in decisions and to draw out what they think and perceive. Curiosity questions (which often begin with “what” or “how”) are one way to do this. Ask, “What do you think will happen if you push your tricycle over the curb?” or “What do you need to do to get ready for preschool?” Children who are involved in decision making experience a healthy sense of personal power and autonomy. For children who are not yet able to talk, say, “Next, we_________,” while kindly and firmly showing them what to do.

There are several particularly effective ways of getting preschoolers involved in cooperation and problem solving. Here are three suggestions:

Create routines together.
Young children learn best by repetition and consistency, so you can ease the transitions of family life by involving them in creating reliable routines. Routines can be created for every event that happens over and over: getting up, bedtime, dinner, shopping, and so on. Sit down with your child and invite her to help you make a routine chart. Ask her to tell you the tasks involved in the routine (such as bedtime). Let her help you decide on the order. Take pictures of her doing each task that can be pasted next to each item. Then let her illustrate the chart with markers and glitter. Hang it where she can see it, and let the routine chart become the boss. When your child gets distracted, you can ask, “Whats next on your routine chart?” (Be sure not to confuse these with sticker or reward charts, which diminish your child’s inner sense of capability because the focus is on the reward.)

Offer limited choices.
Having choices gives children a sense of power: they have the power to choose one possibility or another. Choices also invite a child to use his thinking skills as he contemplates what to do. And, of course, young children often love it when choices include an opportunity to help. “What is the first thing you will do when we get home—help me put the groceries away or read a story? You decide.” “Would you like to carry the blanket or the cracker box as we walk to the car? You decide.” Adding “You decide” increases your child’s sense of power. Be sure the choices are developmentally appropriate and that all of the choices are options you are comfortable with. When your child wants to do something else, you can say, “That wasn’t one of the choices. You can decide between this and this.”

Provide opportunities for your child to help you.
Young children often resist a command to get in the car but respond cheerfully to a request like “I need your help. Will you carry the keys to the car for me?” Activities that might easily have become power struggles and battles can become opportunities for laughter and closeness if you use your instincts and your creativity. Allowing your child to help you (even when it’s messy or inconvenient) also sets the stage for cooperation later on.

Teach Respect by Being Respectful
Parents usually believe children should show respect, not have it shown to them. But children learn respect by seeing what it looks like in action. Be respectful when you make requests. Don’t expect a child to do something “right now” when you are interrupting something she is thoroughly engaged in. Give her some warning: “We need to leave in a minute. Do you want to swing one more time or go down the slide?” Carry a small timer around with you. Teach her to set it to one or two minutes. Then let her put the timer in her pocket so she can be ready to go when the timer goes off.

Remember, too, that making a child feel shame and humiliation—such as a child might feel if she was spanked in the middle of the park (or anywhere else, for that matter)—is disrespectful, and a child who is treated with disrespect is likely to return the favour. Kindness and firmness show respect for your child’s dignity, your own dignity, and the needs of the situation.

Use Your Sense of Humour
No one ever said parenting had to be boring or unpleasant. Laughter is often the best way to approach a situation. Try saying, “Here comes the tickle monster to get children who don’t pick up their toys.” Learn to laugh together and to create games to get unpleasant jobs done quickly. Humour is one of the best—and most enjoyable—parenting tools.

Three-year-old Nathan had an unfortunate tendency to whine, and Beth was at her wits’ end. She had tried talking, explaining, and ignoring, but nothing seemed to have any effect. One day Beth tried something that was probably more desperation than inspiration. As Nathan whined that he wanted some juice, Beth turned to him with a funny look on her face. “Nathan,” she said, “something is wrong with Mommy’s ears. When you whine, I can’t hear you at all!” Again Nathan whined for juice, but this time Beth only shook her head and tapped her ear, looking around as if a mosquito were buzzing near her head. Nathan tried once more, but again Beth shook her head. Then Beth heard something different. The little boy took a deep breath and said in a low, serious voice, “Mommy, can I have some juice?” When Beth turned to look at him, he added “Please?” for good measure. Beth laughed and scooped Nathan up for a hug before heading to the kitchen. “I can hear you perfectly when you ask so nicely,” she said. From that time on, all Beth had to do when Nathan began to whine was tap her ear and shake her head. Nathan would draw an exasperated breath—and begin again in a nicer tone of voice.

Not everything can be treated lightly, of course. But rules become less difficult to follow when children know that a spontaneous tickling match or pillow battle might erupt at any moment. Taking time to lighten up and to laugh together works where discipline is concerned, too, and makes life more pleasant for everyone.

Get into Your Child’s World
Understanding your preschooler’s developmental needs and limitations is critical to parenting during these important years. Do your best to be empathetic when your child becomes upset or has a temper tantrum out of frustration with his lack of abilities. Empathy does not mean rescuing. It means understanding. Give your child a hug and say, “You’re really upset right now. I know you want to stay.” Then hold your child and let him experience his feelings before you gently guide him to leave. If you rescue your child by letting him stay, he won’t have the opportunity to learn from experience that he can survive disappointment. Getting into your child’s world also means seeing the world from his perspective and recognizing his abilities—and his limitations. Occasionally ask yourself how you might be feeling (and acting) if you were your child. It can be illuminating to view the world through a smaller person’s eyes.

Say What You Mean, Then Follow Through with Kindness and Firmness
Children usually sense when you mean what you say and when you don’t. It’s usually best not to say anything unless you mean it and can say it respectfully—and can then follow through with dignity and respect. The fewer words you say, the better! This may mean redirecting or showing a child what she can do instead of punishing her for what she can’t do. It also might mean wordlessly removing a child from the slide when it is time to go, rather than getting into an argument or a battle of wills. When this is done kindly, firmly, and without anger, it will be both respectful and effective.

Be Patient
Understand that you may need to teach your child many things over and over before she is developmentally ready to understand. For example, you can encourage your child to share, but don’t expect her to understand the concept and do it on her own when she doesn’t feel like it. When she refuses to share, rest assured that this doesn’t mean she will be forever selfish. It will help to understand that she is acting age-appropriately. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally and think your child is mad at you, bad, or defiant. Act like the adult (sometimes easier said than done) and do what is necessary without guilt and shame.

Act, Don’t Talk—and Supervise Carefully
Minimize your words and maximize your actions. As Rudolf Dreikurs once said, “Shut your mouth and act.” Quietly take your child by the hand and lead her to where she needs to go. Show her what she can do instead of what she can’t do. And no matter how bright, cooperative, or quick to learn your child is, be sure to supervise her actions carefully. Preschoolers are often impulsive little people and your child will need your watchful attention for years to come.

Accept and Appreciate Your Child’s Uniqueness
Children develop differently and have different strengths. Expecting from a child what he cannot give will only frustrate both of you. Your sister’s children may be able to sit quietly in a restaurant for hours, while yours get twitchy after just a few minutes, no matter how diligently you prepare. If you simply accept that, you can save yourself and your children a lot of grief by waiting to have that fancy meal when you can enjoy it in adult company—or when your children have matured enough for all of you to enjoy it together.

Using positive discipline to empower a child

Positive Discipline is effective with preschoolers because it is different from conventional discipline. It has nothing to do with punishment (which many people think is synonymous with discipline) and everything to do with teaching valuable social and life skills.

Discipline with young children involves deciding what you will do and then kindly and firmly following through, rather than expecting your child to “behave.” As your child matures and becomes more skilled, you will be able to involve him in the process of focusing on solutions and participating in limit setting. In this way he can practice his thinking skills, feel more capable, and learn to use his power and autonomy in useful ways—to say nothing of feeling more motivated to follow solutions and limits he has helped create.

The principles of Positive Discipline will help you build a relationship of love and respect with your child and will help you solve problems together for many years to come.

The building blocks of Positive Discipline include:

Mutual respect
Parents model firmness by respecting themselves and the needs of the situation, and kindness by respecting the needs and humanity of the child.

Understanding the belief behind behavior.
All human behavior has a purpose. You will be far more effective at changing your child’s behavior when you understand the motivation for it. (Children start creating the beliefs that form their personality from the day they are born.) Dealing with the belief is as important as (if not more important than) dealing with the behavior.

Effective communication
Parents and children (even young ones) can learn to listen well and use respectful words to ask for what they need. Parents will learn that children “hear” better when they are invited to think and participate instead of being told what to think and do. And parents will learn how to model the listening they expect from their children.

Understanding a child’s world
Children go through different stages of development. By learning about the developmental tasks your child faces and taking into account other variables such as birth order, temperament, and the presence (or absence) of social and emotional skills, your child’s behavior becomes easier to understand. When you understand your child’s world, you can choose better responses to her behavior.

Discipline that teaches
Effective discipline teaches valuable social and life skills and is neither permissive nor punitive.

Focusing on solutions instead of punishment
Blame never solves problems. At first, you will decide how to approach challenges and problems. But as your child grows and develops, you will learn to work together to find respectful, helpful solutions to the challenges you face, from spilled Kool-Aid to bedtime woes.

Encouragement
Encouragement celebrates effort and improvement, not just success, and helps children develop confidence in their own abilities.

Children do better when they feel better
Where did parents get the crazy idea that in order to make children behave, parents should make them feel shame, humiliation, or even pain? Children are more motivated to cooperate, learn new skills, and offer affection and respect when they feel encouraged, connected, and loved.

When people talk about “discipline” they usually mean “punishment” because they believe the two are one and the same. Parents and teachers sometimes yell and lecture, spank and slap hands, take away toys and privileges, and plop children in a punitive time-out to “think about what you did.”

Unfortunately, no matter how effective punishment may seem at the moment, it does not create the long-term learning and social and life skills parents truly want for their children.

Punishment only makes a challenging situation worse, inviting both adults and children to plunge headfirst into power struggles. Positive Discipline is based on a different premise: that children (and adults) do better when they feel better.

Positive Discipline is about teaching (the meaning of the word discipline is “to teach”), understanding, encouraging, and communicating—not about punishing. Most of us absorbed our ideas about discipline from our own parents, our society, and years of tradition and assumptions. We often believe that children must suffer (at least a little) or they won’t learn anything. But in the past few decades, our society and culture have changed rapidly and our understanding of how children grow and learn has changed, so the ways we teach children to be capable, responsible, confident people must change as well.

Punishment may seem to work in the short term. But over time, it creates rebellion, resistance, or children who just don’t believe in their own worth. There is a better way, and this post is devoted to helping parents discover it.

There is a difference between wants and needs, and your child’s needs are simpler than you might think. All genuine needs should be met. But when you give in to all of your child’s wants, you can create huge problems for your child and for yourself.

For example, your preschooler needs food, shelter, and care. He needs warmth and security. He does not need a pint-sized computer, a television in his bedroom, an iPod, or a miniature monster truck to drive. He may love staring at the television screen, but experts tell us that any kind of screen time at this age may hamper optimal brain development. He may want to sleep in your bed, but he will feel a sense of self-reliance and capability by learning to fall asleep in his own bed. He may love french fries and sugary soda, but if you provide them you could be setting the stage for childhood (and adult) obesity. You get the idea.

From his earliest moments in your family, your young child has four basic needs:

1. A sense of belonging and significance
2. Perceptions of capability
3. Personal power and autonomy
4. Social and life skills

If you can provide your child with these needs, he will be well on his way to becoming a competent, resourceful, happy human being.

The Importance of Belonging and Significance

“Well, of course,” you may be thinking, “everyone knows a child needs to belong.” Most parents believe that what a child really needs is quite simple: he needs love. But love alone does not always create a sense of belonging or worth. In fact, love sometimes leads parents to pamper their children, to punish their children, or to make decisions that are not in their child’s long-term best interest.

Everyone—adults and children alike—needs to belong somewhere. We need to know that we are accepted unconditionally for who we are, rather than just our behavior or what we can do. For young children, the need to belong is even more crucial. After all, they’re still learning about the world around them and their place in it. They need to know they are loved and wanted even when they have a tantrum, spill their cereal, break Dad’s golf clubs, or make yet another mess in the kitchen. Children who don’t believe they belong become discouraged, and discouraged children often misbehave.

Notice the word believe. You may know your child belongs and is significant. But if he doesn’t believe it (sometimes for the darnedest reasons, such as the birth of another baby), he may try to find his sense of belonging and significance in mistaken ways.

In fact, most young children’s misbehavior is a sort of “code” designed to let you know that they don’t feel a sense of belonging and need your attention, connection, time, and teaching. When you can create a sense of belonging and significance for every member of your family, your home becomes a place of peace, respect, and safety.

Perceptions of Capability

Your preschooler will never learn to make decisions, learn new skills, or trust his own abilities if you don’t make room for him to practice. Parenting in the preschool years involves a great deal of letting go. Words alone are not powerful enough to build a sense of competence and confidence in children. Children feel capable when they experience capability and self-sufficiency—when they are able to successfully do something—and from developing solid skills.

Personal Power and Autonomy

Developing autonomy and initiative are among the earliest developmental tasks your child will face. And while parents may not exactly like it, even the youngest child has personal power—and quickly learns how to use it. If you doubt this, think about the last time you saw a four-year-old jut out his jaw, fold his arms, and say boldly, “No! I don’t want to!” Part of your job as a parent will be to help your child learn to channel his considerable power in positive directions—to help solve problems, to learn life skills, and to respect and cooperate with others. Punishment will not teach these vital lessons: effective and loving discipline will.

Social and Life Skills

Teaching your child skills—how to get along with other children and adults, how to feed and dress herself, how to learn responsibility—will occupy most of your parenting hours during the preschool years. But the need for social and practical life skills never goes away. In fact, true self-esteem does not come from being loved, praised, or showered with goodies—it comes from having skills. When children are young, they love to imitate parents. Your child will want to hammer nails with you, squirt the bottle of detergent or prepare breakfast (with lots of supervision). As he grows more capable, you can use these everyday moments of life together to teach him how to become a competent, capable person. Working together to learn skills can occasionally be messy, but it’s also an enjoyable and valuable part of raising your child.

Positive discipline is well, positive. It emphasises goodness instead of punishment, positivity instead of criticism. Used correctly, it empowers children and emboldens them to continually do the right thing for the correct reasons, rather than because of the fear of punishment.

When should you start potty training?

It would be so much easier if there were a magic age at which to potty train your child. You could simply wake up on the morning that he reaches, say, 26 months, plonk him on the potty – and hey presto!

However, every child is different. Some gain the necessary physical, mental and emotional developmental skills as early as 18 months, whereas others aren’t ready until they’re 3 or 4 years old.

Some get the hang of it over a weekend, while others take months. By responding to your child’s signals you can let him set the agenda, so that you’ll both find the transition from nappies to pants as painless as possible.

Weeing or pooing on the potty is a highly complex process. Really, it is. It may not seem very difficult to you, but when you break down the number of skills that are needed to succeed it’s incredible that someone as young as a 2- or 3-year-old could ever master it.

Your toddler has to be able to recognize the signs that he needs to go to the toilet, and then hold on to it long enough to get there. He then has to remember where the potty is, walk to it, grapple with his clothing and pull down his pants – and all this before he even sits down to do his business. Finally, he needs to wipe his bottom, get dressed and wash his hands.

In order for a child to succeed, he has to be physically and mentally ready. Scientists have identified a number of stages your child will go through while developing bladder and bowel control:

1. He becomes aware of having a wet or dirty nappy or clothing. This can occur from 15 months.

2. He recognizes when he is doing a wee or a poo, and may learn the words to tell you all about it. This takes place between 18 and 24 months, or later in some children.

3. He can tell you in advance that he will need to go, with sufficient warning for you to get him to the potty in time. On average, this occurs between 21/2 and 3 years.

4. He gains more control of his bladder and can ‘hold on’ for a while. This takes place from 3 years onwards.

Research has shown that a child cannot voluntarily use the muscles that control his bladder and rectum until he is at least 18 months old. There is a gap of roughly 2 years between the age when a child first starts to recognize that he’s wet, and the time when he can actually hold on and wait before he passes urine. Potty training will be faster if your child is at the last stage before you start; although with perseverance you can certainly achieve dryness earlier, it will be a longer, more drawn-out and, probably, messier process.

A child who is physically ready may still not be prepared to let go of her nappies. Motivation is the key, and a toddler who is becoming more independent and keen to do things for herself will be more interested in going to the toilet like a grown-up than a child who is at an earlier stage of her emotional development. Many children will show strong signs that they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready for potty training before the age of 3. However, at least 15 per cent of children are not potty trained by that age, and 4 per cent still haven’t mastered it by 4 years. It’s important not to panic that your child is falling behind. One research study presented at a European conference for bladder and kidney specialists revealed that for healthy children, bladder capacity increases significantly between the ages of 2 and 3 years, so that by the time they are 3 most children are able to hold on and stay dry for longer periods of time. Your child will get there, in her own time.

In the USA, pediatricians have a saying about potty training: ‘If you start at 2, you’ll be done by 3. If you start at 3, you’ll be done by 3!’

Research is now confirming what parents have known for years: that boys tend to be a little slower to gain control of their bladders and bowels than girls. One study showed that, on average, boys both started and completed potty training later than girls.

According to American research, the average age for completion of potty training (day and night-time dryness) was 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys.

This difference is thought to be due to several factors:

1 Boys’ nervous systems mature later. Girls can begin to gain bladder control from the age of 18 months, whereas with boys it may not be until after 22 months.

2 Women still tend to be the main carers, so boys do not see a same-sex role model as often as girls do.

3 Boys appear to be less sensitive to the feeling of wetness against their skin. But don’t get bogged down in the detail. Every child is different, and if your son seems ready then you should go for it, whatever his age.

Most children will show characteristic signs when they are ready to take on potty training – you just have to be able to recognize these and act on them. If that sounds too much like taking part in a complicated detection exercise, take heart from the fact that some children, especially those with older siblings, can make it very easy for you.

Is your child ready? Many children’s signals are subtler than my daughter’s were. Although there isn’t a checklist you should tick off, there is a gradual accumulation of indicators that your child is becoming physically, mentally and emotionally ready to learn to go to the toilet.

Your child may be ready to start toilet training if:

‘I can do it’ becomes a regular refrain, showing that your toddler wants to become more independent.

He has regular, formed bowel movements, and he may go red in the face and gain a very concentrated expression when he’s about to go.

He has the dexterity to pull his pants up and down by himself.

He’s very interested when his father goes to the toilet and imitates his actions.

He is developed physically so that he can walk and sit down on the potty.

He knows what wee and poo are and may talk about them when you’re changing his nappy.

You may notice that his nappy is dry for longer periods, up to three or four hours. This shows that his bladder capacity and control are improving.

He can understand what you are saying and follow simple instructions, such as ‘Go and get your teddy.’

He starts to recognize the sensations that he needs to go to the toilet and demonstrates this by looking uncomfortable, holding onto himself or grunting. Soon he’ll learn to tell you before it happens.

He may become uncomfortable and complain if his nappy is dirty. He may start to rip off his nappy every time he does a wee in it, which means he can go through ten nappies a day. If this is the case, simple economics dictate that it’s time to reach for the potty.

Potty-training practices have changed considerably over the years. Mothers from previous generations were encouraged to start extraordinarily early, and it was not unheard of to balance babies on the potty as soon as they could sit up, or even earlier. While it is important to balance the advice of previous generations with modern ones, perhaps it is best for all to sense when your child is ready, and then work towards it.

Embracing unconditional parenting

What do you do when a child throws a tantrum? If a child has a strop before bedtime and once things calm down, should you proceed with the normal evening routine of snuggling with her and reading a story together? The conditional approach to parenting says no: We would be rewarding her unacceptable behaviour if we follow it with the usual pleasant activities. Those activities should be suspended, and she should be informed, gently but firmly, why that “consequence” is being imposed.

This course of action feels reassuringly familiar to most of us and consistent with what a lot of parenting books advise. What’s more, it would have been satisfying on some level for us to lay down the law, for the parent to put our foot down, letting her know she wasn’t allowed to act like that.

The unconditional approach to parenting, however, says this is a temptation to be resisted, and that we should indeed snuggle and read a story as usual. But that doesn’t mean we ought to just ignore what happened. Unconditional parenting isn’t a fancy term for letting kids do whatever they want. It’s very important (once the storm has passed) to teach, to reflect together. Whatever lesson we hope to impart is far more likely to be learned if the child knows that your love for her is undimmed by how she had acted.

Whether we’ve thought about them or not, each of these two styles of parenting rests on a distinctive set of beliefs about psychology, about children, even about human nature.

To begin with, the conditional approach is closely related to a school of thought known as behaviourism, which is commonly associated with the late B. F. Skinner. Its most striking characteristic, as the name suggests, is its exclusive focus on behaviours. All that matters about people, in this view, is what you can see and measure. You can’t see a desire or a fear, so you might as well just concentrate on what people do. Furthermore, all behaviours are believed to start and stop, wax and wane, solely on the basis of whether they are “reinforced.”

Behaviourists assume that everything we do can be explained in terms of whether it produces some kind of reward, either one that’s deliberately offered or one that occurs naturally. If a child is affectionate with his parent, or shares his dessert with a friend, it’s said to be purely because this has led to pleasurable responses in the past.

In short: External forces, such as what someone has previously been rewarded (or punished) for doing, account for how we act—and how we act is the sum total of who we are. Even people who have never read any of Skinner’s books seem to have accepted his assumptions. When parents and teachers constantly talk about a child’s “behaviour,”they’re acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It’s not a question of who kids are, what they think or feel or need. Forget motives and values: The idea is just to change what they do. This, of course, is an invitation to rely on discipline techniques whose only purpose is to make kids act—or stop acting—in a particular way.

A more specific example of everyday behaviourism: Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words?

Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean—that is, to lie. But this is not just an isolated parental practice that ought to be reconsidered. It’s one of many possible examples of how Skinnerian thinking — caring only about behaviours — has narrowed our understanding of children and warped the way we deal with them. We see it also in programs that are intended to train little kids to go to sleep on their own or to start using the potty.

From the perspective of these programs, why a child may be sobbing in the dark is irrelevant. It could be terror or boredom or loneliness or hunger or something else. Similarly, it doesn’t matter what reason a toddler may have for not wanting to pee in the toilet when his parent asks him to do so.

Experts who offer step-by-step recipes for “teaching” children to sleep in a room by themselves, or who urge us to offer gold stars, M&Ms, or praise for tinkling in the toilet, are concerned not with the thoughts and feelings and intentions that give rise to a behaviour, only with the behaviour itself.

(While I haven’t done the actual counting that would be necessary to test this, I would tentatively propose the following rule of thumb: The value of a parenting book is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behaviour.)

Let’s come back to the hypothetical example. Conditional parenting assumes that reading her a book and otherwise expressing our continued love for her will only encourage her to throw another fit. She will have learned that it’s okay to wake the baby and refuse to get in the bath because she will interpret our affection as reinforcement for whatever she had just been doing.

Unconditional parenting looks at this situation—and, indeed, at human beings—very differently. For starters, it asks us to consider that the reasons for what a child has done may be more “inside”than “outside.” Her actions can’t necessarily be explained, in mechanical fashion, by looking at external forces like positive responses to her previous behaviour. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by fears that she can’t name, or by frustrations that she doesn’t know how to express. Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviours are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it’s the child who engages in a behaviour, not just the behaviour itself, that matters.

Children are not pets to be trained, nor are they computers, programmed to respond predictably to an input. They act this way rather than that way for many different reasons, some of which may be hard to tease apart. But we can’t just ignore those reasons and respond only to the effects (that is, the behaviours). Indeed, each of those reasons probably calls for a completely different course of action. If, for example, it turned out that a child is really being defiant there may be an underlying cause to deal with at that time instead of the carrot-stick approach.

Effective Parenting: Redefining “Good”

Almost twenty-five years ago, a social psychologist named Elizabeth Cagan reviewed a bushel of contemporary parenting books and concluded that they mostly reflected a “blanket acceptance of parental prerogative,” with little “serious consideration of a child’s needs, feelings, or development. ”The dominant assumption, she added, seemed to be that the parents’ desires “are automatically legitimate,” and thus the only question open for discussion was how, exactly, kids could be made to do whatever they’re told.

Sadly, not much has changed since then. More than a hundred parenting books are published every year, along with countless articles in parenting magazines, and most of them are filled with advice about how to get children to comply with our expectations, how to make them behave, how to train them as though they were pets. Many such guides also offer a pep talk about the need to stand up to kids and assert our power—in some cases explicitly writing off any misgivings we may have about doing so.

This slant is reflected even in the titles of recently published books: Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline; Parents in Charge; Parent in Control; Taking Charge; Back in Control; Disciplining Your Preschooler—and Feeling Good About It; ’Cause I’m the Mommy, That’s Why; Laying Down the Law; Guilt-Free Parenting; “The Answer Is No”; and on and on. Some of these books defensively stand up for old-fashioned values and methods (“Your rear end is going to be mighty sore when your father gets home”), while others make the case for newfangled techniques (“Good job! You peed in the potty, honey! Now you can have your sticker!”). But in neither case do they press us to be sure that what we’re asking of children is reasonable—or in their best interests. It’s also true, as you may have noticed, that many of these books offer suggestions that turn out to be, shall we say, not terribly helpful, even though they’re sometimes followed by comically unrealistic parent-child dialogues intended to show how well they work.

But while it can be frustrating to read about techniques that prove to be ineffective, it’s much more dangerous when books never even bother to ask, “What do we mean by effective?” When we fail to examine our objectives, we’re left by default with practices that are intended solely to get kids to do what they’re told. That means we’re focusing only on what’s most convenient for us, not on what they need. Another thing about parenting guides: Most of them offer advice based solely on what the author happens to think, with carefully chosen anecdotes to support his or her point of view. There’s rarely any mention of what research has to say about the ideas in question.

Indeed, it’s possible to make your way clear across the child-care shelf of your local bookstore, one title at a time, without even realizing that there’s been a considerable amount of scientific investigation of various approaches to parenting. Some readers, I realize, are skeptical of claims that “studies show ”such-and-such to be true, and understandably so. For one thing, people who toss that phrase around often don’t tell you what studies they’re talking about, let alone how they were conducted or just how significant their findings were. And then there’s that pesky question again: If a researcher claims to have proven that doing x with your kids is more effective than doing y, we’d immediately want to ask, “What exactly do you mean by effective? Are you suggesting that children will be better off, psychologically speaking, as a result of x? Will they become more concerned about the impact of their actions on other people? Or is x just more likely to produce mindless obedience?”

Some experts, like some parents, seem to be interested only in that last question. They define a successful strategy as anything that gets kids to follow directions. The focus, in other words, is limited to how children behave, regardless of how they feel about complying with a given request, or, for that matter, how they come to regard the person who succeeded in getting them to do so. This is a pretty dubious way of measuring the value of parenting interventions. The evidence suggests that even disciplinary techniques that seem to “work”often turn out to be much less successful when judged by more meaningful criteria. The child’s commitment to a given behaviour is often shallow and the behavior is therefore short-lived.

But that’s not the end of the story. The problem isn’t just that we miss a lot by evaluating our strategies in terms of whether they get kids to obey; it’s that obedience itself isn’t always desirable. There is such a thing as being too well behaved. One study, for example, followed toddlers in Washington, D.C., until they were five years old and found that “frequent compliance [was] sometimes associated with maladjustment.”

Conversely, “a certain level of resistance to parental authority can be a “positive sign.”Another pair of psychologists, writing in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, described a disturbing phenomenon they called “compulsive compliance,” in which children’s fear of their parents leads them to do whatever they’re told—immediately and unthinkingly. Many therapists, too, have commented on the emotional consequences of an excessive need to please and obey adults. They point out that amazingly well-behaved children do what their parents want them to do, and become what their parents want them to become, but often at the price of losing a sense of themselves.

We might say that discipline doesn’t always help kids to become self-disciplined. But even that second objective isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not necessarily better to get children to internalize our wishes and values so they’ll do what we want even when we’re not around. Trying to foster internalization—or self-discipline—may amount to an attempt to direct children’s behavior by remote control. It’s just a more powerful version of obedience. There’s a big difference, after all, between a child who does something because he or she believes it’s the right thing to do and one who does it out of a sense of compulsion. Ensuring that children internalize our values isn’t the same thing as helping them to develop their own. And it’s diametrically opposed to the goal of having kids become independent thinkers.

Most of us do indeed want our children to think for themselves, to be assertive and morally courageous . . . when they’re with their friends. We hope they’ll stand up to bullies and resist peer pressure, particularly when sex and drugs are involved. But if it’s important to us that kids not be “victims of others’ ideas,” we have to educate them “to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.” Or, to put it the other way around, if we place a premium on obedience at home, we may end up producing kids who go along with what they’re told to do by people outside the home, too.

Author Barbara Coloroso remarks that she’s often heard parents of teenagers complain, “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well mannered, so well dressed. Now look at him!” To this, she replies: From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; he acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do. . . . He hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody. Just not you; it’s his peers.

The more we ponder our long-term goals for our kids, the more complicated things become. Any goal might prove to be objectionable if we consider it in isolation: Few qualities are so important that we’d be willing to sacrifice everything else to achieve them. Maybe it’s wiser to help children strike a balance between opposing pairs of qualities, so that they grow up to be self-reliant but also caring, or confident yet still willing to acknowledge their limitations.

Likewise, some parents may insist that what matters most to them is helping their children to set and meet their own goals. If that makes sense to us, then we have to be prepared for the possibility that they’ll make choices and embrace values that aren’t the same as ours. Our thinking about long-term goals may lead us in any number of directions, but the point I want to emphasize is that however we think about those goals, we ought to think about them a lot. They ought to be our touchstone, if only to keep us from being sucked into the quicksand of daily life with its constant temptation to do whatever it takes to get compliance.

As parents of children, we are well acquainted with the frustrations and challenges that come with the job. There are times when our best strategies fall flat, when our patience runs out, when we just want my kids to do what we tell them. It’s hard to keep the big picture in mind when one child is shrieking in a restaurant. For that matter, it’s sometimes hard to remember the kind of people we want to be when we’re in the middle of a hectic day, or when we feel the pull of less noble impulses. It’s hard, but it’s still worthwhile.

Some people rationalize what they’re doing by dismissing the more meaningful goals— such as trying to be, or to raise one’s child to be, a good person— as “idealistic.” But that just means having ideals, without which we’re not worth a hell of a lot. It doesn’t necessarily mean “impractical.” Indeed, there are pragmatic as well as moral reasons to focus on long-term goals rather than on immediate compliance, to consider what our children need rather than just what we’re demanding, and to see the whole child rather than just the behaviour.

This is subversive stuff— literally. It subverts the conventional advice we receive about raising kids, and it challenges a shortsighted quest to get them to jump through our hoops. For some of us, it may call into question much of what we’ve been doing— and perhaps even what was done to us when we were young.

The issue is not merely discipline but, more broadly, the ways we act with our children, as well as how we think about them and feel about them. It requires us to reconsider basic assumptions about parent-child relationships and think of practical alternatives to the tactics we’re sometimes tempted to use to make our kids behave, or to push them to succeed to help our kids to grow up as good people— good, that is, in the fullest sense of that word.

Stimulating play for toddlers

Question: What’s the difference between a nursery assistant and a football manager?

Answer: One gets paid millions to look after children.

Jokes aside though, looking after children and keeping their play stimulating requires a lot of effort on the part of adults. This is particularly so for those making the transition from baby to young child.

Toddlers may be described in many ways. Some call them terrible (as in “terrible twos”); others call them “terrific” (although I suspect those people do not currently have toddlers in their lives). Most toddlers fall somewhere in between. They are wonderful little people some days and trials on other days.

Toddlers are at an interesting stage of development. They can get around on their own, but they need constant supervision. They understand most of what they hear but are usually unable to communicate their wants and needs effectively. They want to do everything for themselves, but their skills and abilities are limited. They want to try everything, and most of what they do is motivated by an interest in cause and effect. (“Let’s see what happens when. . . .”)

Toddlers also have an abundance of energy. As they enter the toddler stage, some will still be taking two naps per day, but by the end of toddlerhood, many will not be napping at all. This means that a parent or caregiver must occupy the toddler for many hours each day, often without a break. This can be a challenge for most adults, whether they are encountering life with a toddler for the first time or experiencing toddlerhood for the second, third, or fourth time.

In addition to their abundant energy and desire to learn about the world around them, toddlers also have specific needs and characteristics unique to their stage of development. They are not walking babies or watered-down preschoolers. Expecting them to stay involved in activities that are not sufficiently stimulating or are too advanced for their abilities will lead to frustration for the child and the parent or caregiver.

This means parents and caregivers are instinctively doing things that stimulate their children to learn. Talking on a toy telephone, asking “Where are your ears?” as you change your toddler, playing hide-and-seek or peek-a-boo, letting him bang about with pots and pans in the kitchen—these are activities you’ve done countless times without thinking you’re providing a rich learning environment. You are. Running, sliding, swinging, and playing outside are activities which encourage physical development. Playing with playdough, paints, and crayons develops fine motor skills and promotes creativity. Washing hands before meals teaches health. “Hot! Don’t touch!” teaches safety, and a short playtime with friends helps your child learn social skills.

Simply put, toddlers need a stimulating environment and a variety of experiences to help them develop. Activities which emphasize the senses and physical activity will be the most successful. A consistent daily schedule will help your child know what to expect and help him become more independent. He will enjoy repetition of the familiar in songs, books, arts and crafts, and simple games, and he will also be interested in anything new. Try to make a short walk or some outdoor play a part of every day. Be sure to allow your child plenty of free time with interesting things to discover and explore. We all learn best when our interest motivates us to find out about something, and toddlers are no exception.

In many cases, toddlers know how to create their own fun when given the proper materials. Although they require constant supervision, there are things you can do and materials you can provide that will encourage creative and independent play. The first step is to make sure your home is properly toddler-proofed for safety. Many small items interesting to toddlers, such as coins and beads, pose an extreme choking hazard. Make sure such items are well out of reach—an especially difficult task if you have older children in the house, too.

Performing kitchen tasks can be extremely difficult when combined with keeping an eye on an energetic toddler. At times, a one-year-old may be happy just to sit in his highchair or at his own little table with a few toys or snacks to keep him occupied while you work. At other times, he will want to be right there with you, underfoot and into everything. Kitchen cupboards and drawers are full of interesting things that may prove irresistible to your child. Why not provide your child with his very own Baker’s Box? Put together a collection of unbreakable kitchen tools in a plastic crate or small storage box. Store it in a spare cupboard that is low enough for your child to reach. He can use his tools for play or for helping you do some “real” cooking or baking.